On Sondheim, and ‘Big’ Craft Beer

unicornsThe swirl of discussion generated by the recent Boston Magazine article suggesting that Sam Adams and its creator, Jim Koch, have been bypassed by a burgeoning movement within the beer world has been interesting to observe.  While there has been more than an element of hipster-bashing (not always unwarranted, but certainly overstated), I’m firmly on the side of Pete Brown in finding the snobbery distasteful. But while it was ever thus – more on that in a moment – we’ve reached something of a tipping point, in that the sheer number of people on the looking for ‘good’ beer is finally making a real impact in the market.

First, though, let’s rewind.

Back in the 1970s, Coors (yes, Coors) was the beer that American beer snobs wanted desperately. Unpasteurized, it was only available in the West, and its relative scarcity made it a hot commodity. Washington, DC’s Brickskeller (now reborn as The Bier Baron) first began to make waves as a ‘beer bar’ by serving Coors when it was still largely unavailable east of Oklahoma. But its rapid rise to ubiquity – not to mention its similarity to the other light lagers on the market – meant that it quickly lost its shiny unicorn status. While I would argue that Boston Lager, the Sam Adams flagship, is still a perfectly fine beer, it has likewise lost its own shiny unicorn status as the market has changed and evolved – but it won’t be the last.

As the number of breweries has grown, and choice of beer styles has greatly expanded – again, both very good things – an irksome mirror of snobbery that has developed alongside those trends. As a former resident of the Silicon Valley town, I can recall attending the Mountain View Smaller Brewers’ Festival from the late 1990s up through about 2001, and it was not at all difficult to find those attitudes. A casual visitor to the festival  favorably compared a (nameless for our purposes) tiny brewery’s very pleasant pale ale to the local ‘big’ craft beer, Sierra Nevada, only to be smirked at and informed that they were entirely wrong to find any similarities between the two – one was made by a large brewery, and therefore simply Not Interesting, while the other was lovingly handcrafted (in this case, by someone just beyond the homebrewing stage – having sampled their other beer on offer, I can attest that they hadn’t quite nailed sanitizing everything), and therefore, Better.  Several Comic Book Guy lookalikes (remember, this was Silicon Valley pre-dot-com crash) tittered their agreement with the brewer.  You’d see a similar scene replicated throughout the tent, and the same thing is happening across the industry, at least in the social media echo chamber. Now, at least to a certain stripe of drinker, lagers are boring, pale ales are boring, and soon enough, IPAs will also be boring, just because everyone makes one (or, at this point, a double IPA).

Consumer demand for novelty has not been a bad thing; there are a lot of fantastic brewers who are able to push the envelope and deliver consistently wonderful, weird beers; I’m lucky to live a short walk from one of them. But it’s not a model that can be easily replicated, especially on a production scale, and when ‘everyone’ tries to do it, but delivers a product that simply isn’t as good, it drives away potential new ‘converts’ – let’s recall that while ‘our’ numbers are growing, they are still a fraction of the whole.

But the pursuit of novelty often overlooks the achievements of great brewers of ‘normal’ beers, and that’s what I find annoying – I’d love to have more great lagers, especially like Urban Chestnut’s Zwickelbier, or another really excellent English-style stout like Good English, recently enjoyed at the Barren Hill Tavern. Yes, I want more ‘weird stuff’ – but I don’t want ‘normal’ beers to become so rarely-brewed that they become the shiny unicorns in turn.

And if you’re still wondering what this has to do with Sondheim, worry no more. Uncle Stephen solved all of craft beer’s infighting problems back in 1987, when Into the Woods premiered on Broadway. He wrote that:

Witches can be right, Giants can be good. You decide what’s right. You decide what’s good.

If you haven’t seen the film yet, you should go do that – but the point stands. There are huge brewers making good beer – Carlsberg is doing really fun things with their Jacobsen line, and if you’re ever in Copenhagen, you should certainly take their tour; it’s a great beer history lesson, their horses are just as personable as the Clydesdales, and you can try some really good beers at the end, even if their namesake lager isn’t one you’d reach for. There are small brewers I won’t name (we already know the big ones) making some truly appalling beers. There are a lot of big and small brewers making mediocre beers. But the fact that we now have ‘Big Craft’ and can complain about it is a wonderful thing – it means we have a goodly number of small, medium and (relatively) large brewers making excellent beer.  It’s driving the even bigger ones to innovate and improve the scope of their offerings. You can get decent beer on many airlines now. It means even your local dive bar will usually have a reasonable IPA on tap, even if you’ve ‘moved on’ (See? More Sondheim!) from IPAs – just hang in there, you may come back to them.

Market maturity, even if recently powered by what seems to be a puerile search for a malted barley cryptoid (I should probably trademark Ittan-momen White Sake-aged Imperial Smoked Gose before someone else does), is exciting. If your favorite local brewery one day joins the ranks of Big Craft Beer, enjoy it.  If you saw REM play for 30 people in a bar before they got a lot of airplay, you can trot that story out now, but you had less fun if you began ignoring them after Green, simply because everyone else had joined the party. Yes, there were some terrible also-rans when indie went mainstream, but it also meant your favorite formerly-obscure band could afford to tour more often, and produce more records.  Success doesn’t have to be inauthentic, nor do corporate trappings negate quality. Like what you like.

2 thoughts on “On Sondheim, and ‘Big’ Craft Beer

  1. Absolutely terrific article and I agree completely. Sam Adams Boston Lager, for example, is a terrific beer and remains my “go to” beer when I just want a beer. I don’t always want some 15% a.b.v. Russian Imperial Stout checking in at 400 calories. Sometimes, I just want to enjoy a beer. And hey, sometimes, I want to enjoy more than one and at 4.9%, I can enjoy more than one Boston Lager. And, last but not least, when I’m hanging out in a place that advertises lots of taps which means they have every version of Budweiser and Miller on the planet, I can still get a decent beer by ordering a Sam Adams.

  2. Excellent! BTW- as one who has craft beer choices at Laurel Racetrack limited to Sam Adams Lager and Sam Adam’s Seasonal, I never knock Sam Adams. BTW- I am convinced that Natty Bo, though not brewed in Baltimore, has a certain regional feel about it.

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